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Part V
The Cartel des gauches and the
‘internationalisation of security’
‘The objective of my policy’, explained premier Édouard Herriot to the chamber’s foreign affairs commission in early 1925, ‘is the internationalisation of
security.’ This, Herriot observed, required greater faith in international cooperation and strengthening the collective security machinery of the League of
Nations.1 Herriot was summarising the reorientation of French security policy
put in place by the Cartel des gauches after its electoral victory in May 1924.
This decisive shift in policy practices has gone virtually unnoticed in the
historiography of inter-war international relations. Historians have ignored the
ideological commitment to internationalism on the part of the Cartel. Nor has
the existing literature considered the impact of Cartel politics on those security
professionals responsible for the formulation and execution of policy. The
tendency has instead been to try to force the Cartel security policy into a
traditional framework. Professor Soutou, for example, has recently argued
that the security policy of the Herriot government ‘consisted overwhelmingly
of an effort to contain Germany more by a geo-strategic balance of traditional
inspiration than by collective security’.2 Walter McDougall judged that the
years 1924 to 1926 marked the utter defeat of French efforts to achieve ‘a
stabilization based on material guarantees of a balance of power’.3 Even those
scholars that allow for a measure of change over time do not see the impetus for
that change coming from inside France. Patrick Cohrs, for example, assumes
that only British and American statesmen underwent a ‘learning process’ and
responded to the changed normative context of the post-1918 international
environment. Changes in French policy were the product of British and
American pressure and, when they emerged, were based on ‘Anglo-Saxon’
conceptions of international security. Cohrs goes so far as to assert that ‘de
facto French policy . . . gravitated towards Anglo-American principles and rules
AN, C/14762, CAEAN, XIIIème Législature, Herriot audition, 11 Mar. 1925.
G.-H. Soutou, ‘Le Deuil de la puissance (1914–1958)’ in Histoire de la diplomatie française, vol.
II: De 1815 à nos jours (Paris, 2005), 321.
W. McDougall, France’s Rhineland Diplomacy, 1914–1924: The Last Bid for a Balance of Power
in Europe (Princeton, 1978), 374.
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Beyond the Balance of Power
of pacific settlement’.4 Specifically French principles, according to this view,
either did not exist or had no impact on the evolution of French policy.
There are two general reasons why historians have failed to understand the
dynamic changes at work in French security policy. The first is a preoccupation
with economic and especially financial questions that characterises the historiography. In his impressive study of international politics in 1924, for example,
Stephen Schuker begins with the assumption that reparations were ‘the pivotal
issue in European diplomacy during the years after the war’.5 Financial questions were similarly at the heart of the analyses of Denise Artaud and Marc
Trachtenberg. Key works by McDougall and Jacques Bariéty deployed a
broader approach but nonetheless end with the London Conference.
Clemens Wurm’s detailed study of French security policy during this period,
meanwhile, scarcely mentions the negotiations surrounding the Geneva
Protocol, passing directly from the London Conference to the diplomatic
exchanges leading up to Locarno.6 The result of this preoccupation is the
judgement that foreign and security policy was determined overwhelmingly
by economic considerations. Nicole Jordan, for example, concludes that the
‘reorientation’ in French policy during this period came about ‘not for ideological reasons’ but instead ‘as a function of French reparations policy, which
increasingly worked to define national security in economic terms’.7
A second factor contributing to the skewed picture that prevails is a widespread unwillingness to take seriously the influence of internationalist conceptions of peace and security. Most scholars tend to depict Herriot, who became
premier and foreign minister after the electoral victory of the Cartel des gauches,
as a well-meaning but naïve figure who lacked a coherent policy programme or
any clear idea of how to achieve national security.8 Little importance is attributed to Herriot’s pronouncements on foreign and security policy before he
became premier. Cartel security policy is instead interpreted either as a confused
attempt to continue Poincaré’s policy or as an empty vessel with no motivating
principles or pre-existing doctrine. Even those scholars who acknowledge the
importance of internationalist ideas do not recognise the importance of a specifically French variant of internationalism. Serge Berstein, for example, rightly
points out that the security policy of the Herriot government is based on
P. Cohrs, The Unfinished Peace after World War I (Cambridge, 2006), 606–12.
S. Schuker, The End of French Predominance in Europe: The Financial Crisis of 1924 and the
Adoption of the Dawes Plan (Chapel Hill, 1977), 6.
C. Wurm, Die Französische Sicherheitspolitik in der Phase der Umorientierung, 1924–1926
(Frankfurt, 1979), 190–8.
N. Jordan, ‘The reorientation of French diplomacy in the 1920s: the role of Jacques Seydoux’,
EHR, 117, 473 (2002), 877.
A. Adamthwaite, Grandeur and Misery: France’s Bid for Power in Europe, 1914–1940 (London,
1995), 102–6; Jordan, ‘Reorientation of French diplomacy’, 876–9; J. Bariéty, Les Relations
franco-allemandes après la première guerre mondiale (Paris, 1977), 348–9, 680–4, 703–22;
Schuker, End, 126–9, 232–7; J.-N. Jeanneney, La Faillite du Cartel, 1924–1926: leçon d’histoire
pour une gauche au pouvoir, 2nd edn (Paris, 1981), 50–4.
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The Cartel des gauches and the ‘internationalisation of security’
‘an alternative philosophy of international relations’. But he wrongly characterises this philosophy as ‘Wilsonian in inspiration’.9
The book’s final two chapters challenge the standard narrative of French
foreign and security policy in the mid-1920s. They argue that Herriot’s government did have a reasonably coherent foreign policy programme. The core
objectives of this programme were guarantees embedded in international
public law and backed up by binding commitments of mutual assistance
under the wider umbrella of the League of Nations. This international
approach to France’s security was expressed in the formula ‘arbitration–
security–disarmament’ that was introduced at the Fifth League Assembly in
September 1924. French negotiators succeeded in placing this formula at the
heart of international efforts to bolster the collective security provisions of the
Covenant in a process that resulted in the Geneva Protocol. The Protocol was a
Europe-wide system based on the principle of mutual assistance and resting on
binding arbitration that was underwritten by Britain and France. It marked a
decisive transition from security based on traditional practices of the balance of
power, exclusive alliances and the Rhine.
This transition cannot be properly understood without taking into account
the seismic changes in French attitudes towards the issues of peace and security
towards the middle of the 1920s. This period saw a dramatic rise in support for
the League of Nations. This development proceeded hand in hand with the
emergence of an increasingly large and well-organised pacifist movement in
France as dominant narratives of the war as a heroic struggle for the patrie were
gradually displaced by discourses of suffering and sacrifice at the front and
national mourning on the home front. These trends provided the crucial
political context for growing disillusion with the confrontational style of foreign
and security policy under Poincaré and increased support for a strategy based
on international cooperation advocated by the political leadership of the Cartel
des gauches electoral coalition. By mid-1924 even André Tardieu, who had
been a prominent advocate of a hardline policy based on strict treaty enforcement, was moved to observe that ‘there is no longer any room for anyone’s
The Protocol foundered in the face of opposition from a new British government elected in November 1924. Britain’s refusal to ratify the agreement was a
blow for French foreign and security policy under Herriot. But the Protocol
nonetheless served as a template for French policy in the difficult discussions
that led to signature of the Locarno Accords in October 1925. Herriot’s
government fell in April of that year. But the essentials of its negotiating
strategy were taken up by Aristide Briand, who succeeded him as foreign
minister in another Cartel government led by Paul Painlevé. Although
S. Berstein, Histoire du Parti Radical, vol. I: À la Recherche de l’âge d’or (Paris, 1980), 398.
Quoted in McDougall, Rhineland Diplomacy, 369.
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Beyond the Balance of Power
Briand was forced to make important sacrifices to secure a British guarantee of
the Rhineland frontier, the core elements of the Protocol, and in particular the
principles of arbitration and interlocking mutual assistance, remained central
to the Locarno Treaties. A focus on this internationalist dimension to French
policy provides a fresh perspective on the road to Locarno.
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